This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.
The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.
Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.
The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and later entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.
None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however ever been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires attention.
The National Gallery of Jamaica has requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions. The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.